War on Science: What and What Not to Believe

By Emily Koufakis
Stanford University

Too often, people rely on personal experiences, political affiliation, or demographics to formulate opinions about science, said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science, and technology at PEW research.

Rainie was one of three panelists who discussed scientists’ claims regarding the ‘War on Science’ at the ASNE-APME Conference at Stanford University on Saturday.

There is no single explanation for why the public thinks the way it does on science issues, said Rainie.

Susan Goldberg, editor in chief of National Geographic, posed questions about how readers formulate opinions on science. “Shouldn’t people be questioning science?” she asked the other panelists.

Science is a method of inquiry, in which people move towards a better understanding of nature, responded Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach.

“The core of science journalism is not the argument from authority; it certainly carries some weight from a credible scientist; however, the core is the actual evidence itself,” he said.

Most people rely on their own personal experiences and anecdotes, rather than statistics, to make assumptions on science, said Achenbach in his March 2015 National Geographic article “Why Do Many Reasonable People Doubt Science?”.

“Scientific results are always provisional, susceptible to being overturned by some future experiment or observation. Scientists rarely proclaim an absolute truth or absolute certainty,” said Achenbach.  

Rainie suggested scientific issues become “extremely tribalized.”

So many stories are now “inflicted” by political polarization, he added.

During the Republican debate on September 17, for example, Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Donald Trump, and Rand Paul responded to the notion that vaccines cause autism.

“There has – there have been numerous studies, and they have not demonstrated that there is any correlation between vaccinations and autism”, said Carson.

Carson’s statement drew immediate criticism from doctors, scientists, and pediatricians across the country. Trump also disagreed with Carson and suggested again that “vaccinations, or concentrations of them, cause autism.”  

The Autistic Self Advocacy Network reacted to Trump’s statement, refuting that there is any link between autism and vaccinations.

“Autism is not caused by vaccines – and Autistic Americans deserve better than a political rhetoric that suggests that we would be better off dead than disabled,” The Autistic Self Advocacy Network said in a statement.

As a society, it is necessary to be aware of how issues are framed for open interpretation and the steps people take for the future, Achenbach said.

“All of science is skepticism,” he said.

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